North Carolina came up short in Monday night’s national title showdown with Villanova, but the Tar Heels still made a statement.
This season, UNC broke a seven-year Final Four drought and finished with a 33-7 record, putting to rest any suspicions that the program might be falling behind other college basketball blue bloods.
Down the stretch, the team was led by a pair of talented seniors. Forward Brice Johnson continued his All-American campaign in the NCAA tournament, averaging 19 points and 9.3 rebounds through six games in the Big Dance, while guard Marcus Paige was red-hot from three-point range all the way through the championship game.
With Johnson and Paige on the way out, Roy Williams will be tasked with replacing his most productive big man in four years as well as one of the best on-court leaders in school history. But while the Heels may take a slight step back due to the loss of their outgoing senior class, which includes reserve center Joel James, the returning group has enough pieces to stay competitive on the national level next season.
It will start with Joel Berry.
Berry was handed the keys to the starting point guard job at the beginning of this season after Paige broke a bone in his non-shooting hand. The sophomore performed so well in Paige’s absence that Williams decided to move Paige to the 2 so Berry could stay in the lineup.
The 6-foot Berry made tremendous strides and became one of the most important players on the team. That was most apparent when he was named ACC Tournament MVP, and by the end of the season, he was hitting clutch shots, locking down opposing guards on the defensive end and adding toughness to the Tar Heel lineup.
There’s no question that Berry will be the leader of next year’s squad, but assuming all of the underclassmen return, he’ll have plenty of talent around him as well.
Through two years as a starter, small forward Justin Jackson has showed flashes that indicate he possesses All-ACC potential. If he can play consistently well as a junior, UNC could find itself competing for a conference title once again. Jackson averaged 12.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He struggled from three-point range for much of the year, shooting 29.2 percent from long distance, but showed promise by hitting nine of his 19 attempts in the NCAA tournament.
Down low, the team will be led by a duo of veteran big men. Kennedy Meeks will maintain his starting role at the 5, while fellow rising senior Isaiah Hicks will try to fill the shoes left behind by Johnson.
Meeks’ numbers dipped during his junior season, particularly after he missed seven games in the middle of the season while ailing a bone bruise on his knee. However, he made his presence felt leading up to the national championship game with productive outings against Indiana, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
On the way to being named ACC Sixth Man of the Year, Hicks enjoyed a breakout junior campaign. Shooting 61.4 percent from the field, he was a reliable option off the bench, and while expecting him to completely make up for the departure of Johnson would be unrealistic, he could still blossom into one of the better power forwards in the league.
In addition to the rest of the returning roster, which includes versatile wing Theo Pinson and quality backup point guard Nate Britt among others, North Carolina is welcoming a recruiting class made up of three consensus top-100 prospects who will contribute immediately.
Center Tony Bradley is the star of the group, and as a capable scorer and shot-blocker, he could see significant minutes right away. Combo guard Seventh Woods will add athleticism to the backcourt, while small forward Brandon Robinson could provide an instant boost to the team’s perimeter shooting.
UNC won’t enter the 2016-17 season ranked No. 1 in preseason polls like it did this year. But unlike the last two Tar Heel teams to appear in the NCAA title game, it won’t be losing the bulk of its rotation.
There will be no shortage of talent in Chapel Hill next year, and once again, much of it will be experienced talent.
That got Carolina to the national championship game this season, and it could mean that it won’t be long before the program makes another run.
Point guard: Joel Berry, Jr.
Shooting guard: Theo Pinson, Jr.
Small forward: Justin Jackson, Jr.
Power forward: Isaiah Hicks, Sr.
Center: Kennedy Meeks, Sr.
PG Nate Britt, Sr.
C Tony Bradley, Fr.
PG Seventh Woods, Fr.
PF Luke Maye, So.
SG Kenny Williams, So.
SF Brandon Robinson, Fr.
PG Stilman White, Sr.